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Middle East Digest - August 1, 2011


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Washington, DC
August 1, 2011

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The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.

From the Daily Press Briefing of August 1, 2011

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QUESTION: Okay. Can we move on?

MR. TONER: Sure. Go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: The situation in Syria has – seems to have deteriorated even further. The EU today announced new sanctions. One, what do you make of the situation there? And two, given what’s happened over the weekend in Hama, are you speeding up at all your plans for additional sanctions?

MR. TONER: Well, you saw the President’s very strongly worded statement yesterday, and certainly we condemn these acts of violence, these ongoing security operations that began yesterday in Hama as well as Deir al-Zor and suburban Damascus and other parts of Syria. We find these violent attempts by the Syrian regime to target civilians on the eve of Ramadan to be despicable and abhorrent.

We’ve seen this over the past few days where the Asad regime has increasingly used force against its own citizens, killing dozens, injuring thousands more. And during this time of what should be a time – or this period which should be a time of prayer and family gathering, we join the world in mourning the deaths of countless innocent Syrians, especially children such as Layal Askar, who was a one-year-old child killed by a stray bullet from a security officer’s gun in the southern city of Al Hirak. We stand with the Syrian people and we call on President Asad to stop the slaughter now. It’s clear to all that he is the cause of Syria’s instability and not the key to its stability.

In terms of actions taken, you correctly noted that the EU has come out with additional sanctions today. We continue to – as you know, we’ve issued now several sets of sanctions against Asad and his regime. That continues to be an option that we’re looking at as we consider next steps, including, as has been mentioned before, sanctions on oil and gas. And as you know or may be aware of, the UN Security Council will also be discussing Syria today.

QUESTION: Two things. What do you expect out of the Security Council? Well, actually, let me start with --

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: What you said, what you read, seemed to me – I didn’t memorize the President’s statement from yesterday, but it sounded pretty close. Is that --

MR. TONER: Well, I --

QUESTION: The key – not the key --

MR. TONER: (Inaudible) the President’s statement, if that’s what you’re asking, Matt.

QUESTION: Well, that cleared all – Asad is not – is the cause of the instability and not the key to stability. That was word-for-word from the President’s statement, yes?

MR. TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: And the beginning part of that, was that – wasn’t that also pretty much word-for-word from his statement?

MR. TONER: Again, Matt --

QUESTION: I realize that you can’t get fired for quoting the President, so --

MR. TONER: That’s exactly right. And what’s important --

QUESTION: But basically, the message from the U.S. has not – I’m just trying to figure out – has not changed?

MR. TONER: The message has not changed.

QUESTION: Since yesterday – it hasn’t gotten stronger, it hasn’t gotten weaker?

MR. TONER: The message has not changed. It’s hard to imagine how our message could get much stronger to Asad and his regime. He has lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people. He has become increasingly the sole source of violence in his country. He’s carried out abhorrent acts against the Syrian people, including the deaths of children and other innocents, and it needs to end.

In terms of the UN Security Council --

QUESTION: Yes.

MR. TONER: -- they are meeting today. Certainly, we think it’s important that they send a strong and unified message to Asad and his regime, but I can’t predict what’s going to come out of it yet.

QUESTION: What is your field assessment? Is it that this desperate act or this desperate conduct of things by the regime, is it a sign of strength or is it a sign of his imminent demise?

MR. TONER: Well, if it’s a sign of strength, then he’s – it’s – we believe it’s a futile sign, because all this is doing is strengthening the resolve of the protestors against the regime. We’ve talked about this before. The more they carry out violence against the Syrian people, the stronger their opposition to the Asad regime.

In terms of what’s behind it, our field assessment, it’s difficult to say. It appears to be, given the events of the weekend, a systematic approach to quell this dissent, this opposition, and again, on the eve of Ramadan. But to say what’s behind it or whether this is a desperate last act, it’s hard to say for --

QUESTION: But surely your ears – if I may continue.

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: But surely your ears and eyes on the ground must tell you that he’s got so much to go. I mean, what are they telling you? What is your assessment?

MR. TONER: Well, again, it’s a very fluid situation. It is – it’s clear that Asad’s regime is resorting to violence to try to quell this dissent, and it’s also clear to us that it’s not going to succeed.

Lach, and then Andy, and then Rosalind.

QUESTION: You mentioned the UN Security Council should take a strong and unified message. Is the chance of such a message coming out today higher, given that the Russians are now more harshly criticizing what’s going on?

MR. TONER: Again, I’m not going to try to predict what might come out. I just think that as Syria carries out more of these kinds of actions, that the international community is increasingly going to come together and speak in one voice.

QUESTION: Have you had any contacts with the Russians, the Chinese? And I believe India and South African and Brazil are also reluctant.

MR. TONER: Well, I believe in New York we would have contact with them in general.

QUESTION: Right. But none between the Secretary and her counterparts?

MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of. No.

QUESTION: You mentioned it would be hard to imagine if the U.S. message to Asad and company could get any stronger, but clearly it could easily get stronger if you guys were willing to unveil new sanctions, as the Europeans have done. What’s the delay on this? I mean, you talk about moving in concert with your allies overseas. They’re moving ahead with sanctions. Why is the U.S. dragging its feet?

MR. TONER: Well, and the President did allude to next steps as we’re moving forward, and it’s – I think it’s important that we do move in concert, that we do work with our partners on this. And the EU has been a stalwart partner in speaking out against violence in Syria, as well as taking specific actions. We’ve done a great deal already. We’re looking at other steps. These can’t be enacted overnight, as you know, but we’re certainly looking what we might do next.

QUESTION: Can I have just a follow-up?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: I’m wondering what – if you can tell us what Ambassador Ford has been doing over the past couple of days. And has there been any further contact between the United States and members of Syria’s opposition. And if so, what? What are you going to do to try and help them?

MR. TONER: Okay. Ambassador Ford is actually in Washington, and he is here, as you probably, or may or may not know. He was supposed to have a confirmation hearing this week.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. TONER: Whether he stays for that hearing, given events on the ground in Syria, or returns to deal with the situation, it’s unclear. We’re assessing it.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the opposition?

MR. TONER: And the opposition, I’ll try to get more information on the next meetings.

QUESTION: This hearing was scheduled some time back or –

MR. TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: Did the foreign minister –

MR. TONER: I’m not – he was, I believe, recess appointed.

QUESTION: Yeah. So when was he re-nominated?

MR. TONER: He’s *going to* have confirmation.

QUESTION: I missed it. When was he re-nominated?

MR. TONER: I don’t know. I’ll find out.

QUESTION: And what day was the hearing – is the hearing?

MR. TONER: Wednesday.

QUESTION: British foreign minister –

MR. TONER: It’s Rosalind. Sorry. Rosalind’s turn, and then I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: We’re coming back to the question which has dominated this issue of Syria for the past four months. What is it about Syria, from a national security perspective, from a foreign policy perspective, that makes Syria different from what we thought was going to happen in Libya? We thought that there was going to be a whole-scale massacre of people in Benghazi, which is why the UN, with avid U.S. support, supported the no-fly zone. We now know from many multiple sources that tanks have rolled into various communities across Syria, and people are being killed. And the toll is at least 100 and rising.

What makes Syria a special case that the U.S. and the EU and the UN and the Arab League and all of these countries watching this happen – why haven’t people said we need to do something more than just simply issue sanctions? Clearly, the Syrians are not listening to the U.S.

MR. TONER: Well, a couple of things – responses. First of all, let’s keep the focus on where it should be, which is on Asad, his regime, its actions against the Syrian people, and their own struggle to be heard and to voice peacefully their opposition to Asad’s regime and to call on a change and to bring about democratic change and a democratic transition in that country.

In terms of the international community, we’ve long said you can’t put a single template on every one of these countries. It just doesn’t work. With Syria, you threw in a lot of countries together. We believe -- the U.S. and, as I said, with some of our partners, including the EU, we have been working diligently to build international consensus, both within the UN and elsewhere, and to raise awareness of what’s going on in Syria. It’s hard for me to explain or to say why that happened more quickly, gestated more quickly, with regard to Libya. There was that immediate threat. But you’re absolutely right. We see an uptick – a steady uptick in violence and a regime that appears to be carrying out systematic violence against its people.

QUESTION: And it –

MR. TONER: And again, we’re going to be moving forward, looking at ways that we can increase the pressure both multilaterally and unilaterally on Asad.

QUESTION: Are we talking about the balance of power in the region, Syria as it relates to Iran and to Israel?

MR. TONER: We – no. No. And that’s –

QUESTION: It really does beg the question, Mark.

MR. TONER: When we have – when we – we have said that we do – we’ve said, the Secretary has said, others have said, he is not indispensible. He has lost legitimacy with his people. A democratic transition needs to take place.

QUESTION: Isn’t it the case, though, that you would be more willing to take stronger line if the Arab League had a consensus on this or if the UN Security Council could reach a consensus? And by which, I mean –

MR. TONER: I – Matt, I think it’s self-evident that we need to build a stronger international consensus on this.

QUESTION: Yeah. But I mean, if, in fact, it was the case with – as it was the case with Libya, that the Arab League came out and said something, and if it was the case, as it was with Libya, that the UN Security Council could actually agree on something, wouldn’t’ we be seeing a different reaction from – or based on –

MR. TONER: Which is what – which is precisely what we’re working to build, that type of –

QUESTION: So that’s what you’re looking for at the Security Council today? Just something for –

MR. TONER: We are looking for – against, these are – we are – we have been – and given the events of the weekend, continue to look to build that coherence and that consensus towards Syria.

Yes.

QUESTION: British Foreign Minister William Hague pointed – made two points –

MR. TONER: I missed – who?

QUESTION: British Foreign Minister Hague.

MR. TONER: British foreign minister, okay.

QUESTION: The one is you touched a little bit, pressure, not – should not only come from the U.S. but also Arab states and Turkey. Do you concur with this complaint? Do you think the Arab countries and Turkey --

MR. TONER: Well, Turkey’s spoken out publicly several times and has also dealt with some of the regional side effects, if you will, of the crisis in Syria, and done so very capably and in a very productive and humanitarian fashion. So we believe Turkey’s really played a constructive role and continues to do so, and is an important voice. And as I said – I’ll just repeat what I just said, which is that it’s really important that we continue to build a stronger international consensus.

QUESTION: Foreign minister also stated that it is not a remote possibility to basically make any kind of intervention. Do you also agree that is not even remote possibility?

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t want to exclude or discuss what options may be until we’re ready to announce them.

QUESTION: Turkey – you’re talking about partners and the UN and so on. Why aren’t you leaning on the Arab League? I mean, in fact, the theme for the demonstration -- –

MR. TONER: We --

QUESTION: -- on Friday was, “Your silence is killing us,” in a direct address to the Arab League. Why aren’t you leaning on them?

MR. TONER: Well, it sounds like the Syrian people are making that same case to the Arab League. We continue to discuss --

QUESTION: Right. They do that, but why don’t you lean on them?

MR. TONER: -- with our Arab partners the situation in Syria and the urgency there.

QUESTION: So the answer to the question is you are leaning on the Arab League?

MR. TONER: We continue to discuss with our Arab partners as well as our partners around the world and – about the situation in Syria.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: On that, how do you assess where you are right now? How much success have you had in building that coalition?

MR. TONER: That’s a fair question. I think, certainly, unilaterally I think we’ve taken some very strong steps in terms of sanctions that directly target Asad and his regime. And within the UN, we have moved to investigate the regime’s human rights abuses and to take steps to hold his regime accountable for them. And internationally, I would say it’s been a slower process, if you will, but we continue to, obviously, work with partners like the EU very effectively. But with others, we’re trying to build that consensus and work towards increasing pressure on Asad.

QUESTION: Has the Secretary herself made any calls in this regard?

MR. TONER: Not over the weekend, but I’m not sure what she has on tap for today.

QUESTION: Can we move on?

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: So in Libya, where the international --

QUESTION: Can I follow up on one thing?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Do you know when Ford came back, what day he actually came back?

MR. TONER: He did come back.

QUESTION: What day?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. I thought you said, “Did he come back?” I’m not sure when he arrived. I’ll find out.

QUESTION: Whether before or after?

MR. TONER: I would assume it was yesterday or Saturday, not today, but I will – I’ll check with you.

QUESTION: So in Libya, where you –

MR. TONER: I’ll check for you, rather.

QUESTION: -- have said over and over that the international community did act with great haste, things seem to be falling apart with your new partners in Benghazi. What’s your – what do you make of the situation where they’re basically going after each other now and they seem to be more – the killing of this military commander Younes seems to have opened up a big can of worms. What’s your understanding of the situation there?

MR. TONER: Well, in terms of the – last week’s killing of Younes, we do welcome the Transitional National Council’s move to set up an impartial committee that’ll investigate the incident, and we look forward to hearing the results. As I said last week, it’s important that, given the fluidness of the situation on the ground, that the Transitional National Council work to ensure that it takes the right kinds of actions, such as an investigation into the death, that sends a clear and transparent message that they speak on behalf of the Libyan opposition and the Libyan people, and that they’re diligently carrying out their mandate.

QUESTION: Do you believe still that they speak on behalf of – that they are the legitimate governing authority?

MR. TONER: We do.

QUESTION: Yes?

MR. TONER: We do.

QUESTION: So this hasn’t – the infighting has not yet –

MR. TONER: We’ve – as I said on Friday, there are significant challenges that they’ve faced. This is one. But we’re confident that they can work through it.

QUESTION: So in spite of the reports that they have carried out human rights violations, in spite of the fact that there might – may have been – that the murder of Younes might have been an internal job, in spite of all of the things – breakouts from prisons, et cetera – they’re still a credible, legitimate group?

MR. TONER: Yes, and we believe that these – this is the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people during this transition period. As I said, this is an extremely challenging period for Libya, and they are dealing with these challenges as they come, but we have confidence that they can weather this.

MR. TONER: Rosalind.

QUESTION: Apparent crackdown by the Egyptian military on people in Tahrir Square, seemed to get pretty violent at one point this morning. What does the U.S. think of this? Does the U.S. believe that the military government is capable of carrying out next month’s elections?

MR. TONER: Well, we’ve certainly seen the reports, and we’re, as always, concerned by any violent incident involving peaceful protesters. Since January 25th, the Egyptian people have made their right-- have made the right to peacefully assemble and protest a cornerstone of their demands, and we fully support that. And we call on the Egyptian Government to protect that right.

QUESTION: Has there been any direct contact with the interim Egyptian government, either through its embassy here or in Cairo?

MR. TONER: I’m not aware of here, but in Cairo we maintain regular contact with the interim authorities.

QUESTION: So nothing today?

MR. TONER: I don’t know. I’ll check.

QUESTION: Palestinian-Israeli?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Any information on a possible invitation by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Mr. Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, to come the second week of August to negotiate a possible proposal by the United States?

MR. TONER: No, I have nothing to announce and no information about it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: In the back. You’ve been – go ahead.

QUESTION: Me?

MR. TONER: Yep.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Going back to Libya and Venezuela, Muammar Qadhafi sent a letter to President Chavez. I was wondering if you have any comments on that or any information on that? What is your position? Thank you.

MR. TONER: I would hope he urged Qadhafi to step down and allow a democratic transition to take place.

QUESTION: Can we go to --

MR. TONER: Yeah, let’s go and --

QUESTION: -- Pak --

MR. TONER: We’re going to go – probably North Korea, but let’s go Pakistan and then North Korea. (Laughter.) Sorry. I don’t mean to prejudge.

QUESTION: All right. So, Pakistan. What’s your understanding of the situation as it regards U.S. diplomats and their travel – ability to travel in Pakistan right now?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Thanks. Well, some, at the moment, personnel have been able to travel. In fact, I just learned today that diplomats were able to travel between Islamabad and Peshawar. And I would just say, speaking on a broader level, that we’re working cooperatively with the Government of Pakistan to resolve the issue.

QUESTION: Well, what – does that mean that they had to get permission to travel to --

MR. TONER: These individuals?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. TONER: I’m aware that there’s some kind of certificate that they’re presently carrying that helps them travel at present.

QUESTION: All right. Well, are there any plans to take reciprocal action? It seems to me these things are always governed on the basis of reciprocity, and if they’re going to slap restrictions on you, you will slap restrictions on them.

MR. TONER: And I would just say that we are working cooperatively with the Government of Pakistan to resolve the issue. We --

QUESTION: Well, can you explain what the issue is?

MR. TONER: Let me just say we’ve met with Pakistani officials on this matter both in Washington and in Islamabad, and we believe it can be resolved.

QUESTION: What exactly is the issue?

MR. TONER: The issue is the right of our diplomats to freely travel.

QUESTION: Right. But – and why has that been compromised?

MR. TONER: You’ll have to ask the Government of Pakistan.

QUESTION: Well, when did you – when were you informed that --

QUESTION: Well, why are you answering these questions?

QUESTION: -- that there was new – that there were new restrictions on their ability to travel?

MR. TONER: When – I’m sorry?

QUESTION: When were you informed that there were new restrictions, and how was that information conveyed?

MR. TONER: Sure. I believe last week; I don’t know the exact date.

QUESTION: And they sent you a letter or they --

MR. TONER: I’ll find out. I’ll find out how it was conveyed.

QUESTION: You’re not sure that --

QUESTION: And Mark, just a clarification, then. If they’re traveling between – if they’re allowed to travel between Islamabad and Peshawar, then where can’t they travel? I mean, I’m a little confused.

MR. TONER: Again, there was an incident last week, I believe, where diplomats were prevented from traveling between Islamabad and Peshawar. And we obviously raised our concerns. We feel that we’re making progress towards resolving the issue.

QUESTION: But just to clarify, so they can now travel between Islamabad and Peshawar?

MR. TONER: They did successfully travel, yes, between Islamabad --

QUESTION: Okay. So – but there’s still a problem to be resolved?

QUESTION: With the --

MR. TONER: I believe with that certificate, yes.

QUESTION: Oh, okay.

QUESTION: Is it true that the U.S. at least threatened to place reciprocal restrictions on the movement of Pakistani diplomats in Washington?

MR. TONER: You’re asking me to talk about our private diplomatic exchanges. I’m not going to.

QUESTION: Well, wait a second. I don’t understand. If you’re not – what is the problem? What did the Pakistanis tell you?

MR. TONER: The issue is the right for our diplomats, according to the Vienna Conventions, to travel freely within the country where they work.

QUESTION: And somehow this was compromised?

MR. TONER: There was an incident last week where diplomats were unable to travel freely.

QUESTION: Is it not true that you received – that the U.S. was sent a note from the Pakistani foreign ministry on June 13th

MR. TONER: I will find out --

QUESTION: -- that said that they had to get –

MR. TONER: I will find out when we became aware of these restrictions, but the fact that we’ve raised this issue on multiple levels in Washington and in Islamabad with the Government of Pakistan and we’re working to resolve it.

MR. TONER: Are we ready to go to Iran?

QUESTION: I know you made the statement about the hikers, but do you have any indication – the families tend to think that they are going to be released. Is there anything further that you can give us just in terms of how the legal situation is evaluated at this point?

MR. TONER: We continue to seek information through our Swiss protecting power. I said on Friday, and I’ll say it again, is that we start from the premise that they’ve been held far too long and been held without any reason and that they should be released, and we remain very hopeful that they will be.

QUESTION: Is the fact that Ramadan is coming up bode well for clemency?

MR. TONER: It’s very hard to say, Lach. I just – I just would reiterate that we remain hopeful that they’ll – that their ordeal will end soon.

QUESTION: What gives you reason to hope?

MR. TONER: That we believe that the charges against them are without merit and that they were simply hiking and should be released based on that.

QUESTION: Right. But what gives you hope that they will be released soon? I mean, you say we remain hopeful. I mean, you could have said that two years ago.

MR. TONER: I think, given the length of their incarceration, but beyond that, we believe that they should be – they should have been released a long time --

QUESTION: You haven’t heard anything from the Swiss --

MR. TONER: No. No.

QUESTION: -- that leads you to believe that there is hope that they could be released in the near future?

MR. TONER: No. We know the trial concluded yesterday and that a verdict is expected this week, but beyond that, nothing.

QUESTION: Is that a ringing endorsement for the veracity of the Iranian justice system?

MR. TONER: Again --

QUESTION: You’re saying that the fact that they were held illegally should --

MR. TONER: Again, we would just hope that they’ll be released.



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